Mobile phones are common across many emerging economies. Yet, mobile phone ownership is not equally embraced either among nations or within them. Across the 11 emerging economies surveyed as part of this report, up to one-in-five people do not own or even share a mobile phone.
While myriad factors affect why people don’t own or use mobile phones, a few key ones stand out. First, non-mobile phone users tend to be put off by the cost of owning mobile phones – and, particularly, the cost of the device itself, more so than the cost of data. Second, many non-users see limited value to mobile phones for their lives. Linguistic difficulties and technological literacy also affect non-users, though at somewhat lower rates. Non-users are also concerned about the security of mobile phones and the sensitive information they contain.
And, while majorities of non-users would like to own a phone in some countries surveyed, non-users elsewhere are content to continue without digital connectivity.
The share of mobile phone non-users varies in emerging economies
Across the 11 countries, a median of 6% say they neither own their own mobile phone nor regularly use someone else’s device. Nonuse varies across these countries – ranging from a low of just 2% in Vietnam to a high of 20% in the Philippines.
Nonuse tends to be more common among adults with lower levels of income and education.1 In the Philippines, for instance, 10% of people with more education say they do not use a phone, compared with 38% of those with lower levels of education. This pattern exists in all 11 countries surveyed. Similarly, across most nations surveyed, older people are more likely than younger to be non-users.
However, gender differences in nonuse vary markedly by country. For example, in India, 24% of women are non-users, compared with 11% of men. In most other countries, there are smaller or no significant differences in nonuse by gender.
Given that mobile phone use is relatively common, the main analysis in this chapter involves only the eight countries where there are sufficient sample sizes (about 100 mobile phone non-users or more) to allow for additional analysis of non-users’ experiences.
Multiple factors contribute to why people don’t use mobile phones
In each country, mobile phone non-users were asked whether each of 12 factors was part of the reason they do not use a mobile device. These factors ranged from issues related to cost – whether of data or the device itself – to issues of digital literacy or linguistic difficulty, among others. If non-users mentioned that more than one of the 12 factors played into their decision not to use a phone, they were also asked which of those they had named was the top factor hampering their use.
Results indicate that, while myriad factors have an impact on people’s decisions not to use phones, financial constraints are key. Across the eight countries with a sufficient sample size to analyze, a median of 51% say the cost of a mobile device is a reason they do not own a mobile phone. Among those who gave multiple reasons that they did not use a phone, device cost also is the top reason people cite for not owning a mobile device (a median of 17% of non-users across eight countries). A median of 34% also say data costs are a factor in why they do not use a mobile phone, though a median of only 5% say this is their top reason.
Others may simply not find a mobile phone imperative for themselves or their families: A median of 48% say they do not use a phone because their family already has a device, and another 43% say they simply have no need for one. Concerns about complexity also rank as a key issue for many: A median of 43% say they do not use a mobile phone because the device is too complicated, while 31% say they cannot read well enough to do so.
The cost of the device itself most concerns non-users
In five countries, around half or more mobile phone non-users say device costs are a reason they do not own a mobile phone. This ranges from a low of 30% who cite device costs as an issue in India to a high of 89% in Venezuela.
For most non-users, the cost of data is less of a concern. In Venezuela, for example, while around nine-in-ten (89%) see device costs as prohibitive, half say the cost of data is a reason they don’t use a device. While the relative gap between device and data costs may be smaller in other countries, more people in each country say device costs are a hurdle to ownership than say the same of data costs.
Still, data costs are a deterrent for many; a median of 34% say data costs are a reason they do not use a mobile phone. This is highest in Tunisia (63%).
Worries about theft of a phone and information security deter some from owning phones
Certain publics view security as more of an issue than others. More than three-in-ten mobile phone non-users in Colombia, Mexico, South Africa and Tunisia report both worries over theft of the device itself and information security as reasons for non-ownership. While Venezuelan non-users worry about theft at a similar rate, information security worries there are half as prevalent. Lebanese and Indians who don’t have mobile phones are less concerned about both the physical security of their devices and information security. In Lebanon, for example, 3% of mobile phone non-users report worries about the device being stolen and information security, respectively, as reasons for non-ownership.
However, when it comes to identity theft in general, about nine-in-ten Mexican (91%), Colombian (89%) and Venezuelan (87%) non-users say they are at least somewhat concerned. In all of these countries, two-thirds or more say they are very concerned about the general possibility of identity theft.
Some mobile non-users see little use for a device or have other means of accessing the internet
In five countries, around half or more say they do not have a mobile phone because someone else in their family does. In contrast, few non-users say they do not use mobile phones because they have other means of accessing the internet; a median of only 19% across the eight countries say this.
Reported lack of need for mobile connectivity is highest among non-mobile phone users in Lebanon (64%) and India (61%); in most countries, around a third or more of non-users cite this as a reason. Only in Venezuela, where rapid inflation has left large swathes of the country in dire poverty, do few non-users (13%) report that not needing a device contributes to them not using one. Similarly, 89% of Venezuelans report device costs as a reason why they do not currently have a mobile phone.
In addition, some also say they opt not to use a phone simply because they perceive phones to be too complicated. Across the eight countries, a median of 43% say this is the case for them. It is not just smartphones that non-users may see as too complicated. In Mexico – the country where feature phone ownership is highest – 58% of non-users say that perceived difficulty is part of their rationale for not using mobile devices. In Lebanon, too, around half of non-users say the difficulty and complexity of phones affects them.
Literacy, language difficulties can be an obstacle to mobile-phone use
For those with limited reading abilities, mobile phones may hold less appeal, even though technology companies are working to make communication via voice activation, image and video easier for less-literate users.
This survey shows that people’s evaluations of their own reading ability contribute to whether they have a mobile phone. Across the eight countries, a median of 31% say their own limited reading ability is a factor in why they don’t use a device.
Limited reading ability is a greater factor in non-users’ assessments in countries with lower levels of adult literacy. For example, in India, the country with the lowest level of adult literacy among the eight discussed here (74%, according to the World Bank), nearly half of all mobile phone non-users say their limited reading ability contributes to them not using mobile phones. At the other extreme is Venezuela, where 97% of the adult population is literate, and only 10% say limited reading ability has an impact on their decision to not use a phone.
In most countries, the availability of applications and websites in people’s preferred languages is rarely cited as an issue. Across the eight countries, a median of 12% say the fact that they can’t find information in their desired language on apps or websites contributes to their lack of phone use. Only in Tunisia and Mexico do one-in-five or more non-users say this is a factor for them.
A share of non-users cite limited mobile service as a reason they don’t use a phone
Although access to reliable mobile service varies across the countries surveyed, lack of service is not a key reason most non-users give for why they don’t use mobile phones.
Across the eight countries, a median of 18% say limited mobile service is a reason they don’t use mobile phones, ranging from a high of 31% in Tunisia to a low of only 2% in Lebanon.
Many but not all non-users would like to have a mobile phone
Despite the perceived challenges and barriers, many non-users would like to own a mobile phone in the future. Venezuelan non-users stand out for their keen interest in acquiring a mobile phone; 86% of mobile phone non-users in Venezuela say they would like to get a phone in the future. Elsewhere, these numbers vary markedly, from around half or more desiring a mobile phone in South Africa (65%), Colombia (61%) and Tunisia (52%), to fewer than half in Mexico (41%), the Philippines (35%), India (31%) and Lebanon (9%).